Bee Sting Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

Questionable Benefits and Definite Risks Associated With Using Bee's Venom

Honeybee collecting pollen from a flower.
mrs / Getty Images

Bee sting therapy, also referred to as “bee venom therapy,” is pretty much just what it sounds like—getting stung by bees in a controlled setting.

More specifically, bee sting therapy is a type of “apitherapy,” a term which refers to the use of bee products to treat medical conditions. Other forms of apitherapy include the use of bee pollen, propolis (a waxy substance produced by bees), raw honey, and royal jelly.

How Bee Therapy Works

It's believed that bee sting therapy works by using the patient's own body to reduce inflammation. The theory is that because the bee stings produce inflammation, the body mounts an anti-inflammatory response. Presumably, this would then work to reduce inflammation in other parts of the body, such as in the brain and spinal cord where the protective myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers is attacked by the immune system in a person with MS.

What Happens During Treatment

Bee sting practitioners include nurses, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and interested laypersons, including beekeepers. Although, some people just order some bees and perform the sessions themselves. Bee sting therapy can also be given by physicians—they use venom in an injectable form, administering it under the skin, rather than live bees.

Before the treatment begins, the therapist may inject you with a weak form of the venom to test for an allergic reaction. A bee (usually a honeybee) is held with tweezers up to a part of the body. The stinger is left in for up to 15 minutes and then removed with tweezers. Between 20 to 40 stings are done each session, and a person typically undergoes three sessions a week.

Effectiveness of Bee Sting Therapy

Bee sting therapy has been studied on a limited basis for MS. A couple of studies used bee sting therapy in mice who had experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE), a condition that resembles MS in humans. The treatment not only showed no benefit, but some of the mice receiving bee stings seemed to have worsening symptoms.

In addition, a study was conducted in the Netherlands among 24 people with either relapsing-remitting MS or secondary progressive MS. While the bee sting treatment was well-tolerated, no beneficial effects were seen on the MRIs. The participants also noted no improvement in their disability, fatigue, or quality of life.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, bee sting therapy has been reported anecdotally by some people with MS to increase stability, as well as reduce fatigue and spasticity, which are common symptoms of MS.

Risks of Bee Sting Therapy

Pain is one of the biggest drawbacks with bee sting therapy. In addition to the discomfort of being stung by 40 bees, most people experience some degree of swelling and redness at the sting site. This swelling and pain can generally be eased by applying ice before and after the stings.

Other adverse effects reported include:

  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellowing of the white part of the eyes (called jaundice)
  • Severe pain in the left shoulder and arm and chest wall
  • Muscle weakness of the left arm and hand.

Rarely, these very serious and severe effects below have also been reported:

Death

A small number of people (less than 100) die every year from reactions to bee stings. These deaths could be due to anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions) or heart attacks brought on by a mild allergic reaction in combination with other factors like dehydration or a preexisting heart condition. It's important that an Epi-Pen Autoinjector is available in case of an allergic reaction.

Optic Neuritis

Inflammation of the optic nerve (optic neuritis) may occur in people (regardless if they have MS or not) when bee stings are given on or near the eye area, including the temple or eyebrow area. This is why it's important to avoid all bee stings in this area.

Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis

This is a rare form of inflammation of the central nervous system, which is very similar to that which occurs in MS.

A Word From Verywell

A couple take-home points to keep in mind is that bee sting therapy is meant to be a complementary MS therapy, meaning that it should not be used as a substitute for disease-modifying therapies.

Secondly, at this time, there simply is not enough robust evidence (there are no long-term studies) to support bee sting therapy as an effective treatment for MS. In other words, more clinical studies are needed to really understand its benefit (if any) in MS. In the end, if you are interested in a complementary MS therapy, please talk with your neurologist. Perhaps, a therapy that is more relaxing, peaceful, and scientifically supportive, like yoga or progressive muscle relaxation, would be best.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources